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Advocates await good news on day care [CA-ON]

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Monsebraaten, Laurie
Publication Date: 
31 Jan 2004

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The paint is peeling, the furniture is worn and the toys are tired at McMurrich Sprouts Daycare in Toronto.

During almost a decade of provincial Tory rule, Myers has watched day care subsidies dwindle, staff wages stagnate and money grow scarce for new equipment and repairs at her centre, near Davenport Rd. and Ossington Ave., which serves about 100 children aged two months to 12.

But Myers and others in the field are cautiously optimistic after this month's announcement that the new Liberal regime will spend $9.7 million in federal funds to help day-care centres make physical improvements this winter.

Myers and child-care advocates say the proof will be in Ottawa's throne speech on Monday and in the federal and provincial budgets expected later this spring. "There's no question that child care is back on the political agenda at Queen's Park," said Toronto Councillor Olivia Chow, the city's children's advocate. "But this month's announcement was just a tiny baby step."

The city's community services committee says Toronto needs at least $16.8 million from Queen's Park this year to restore 1,776 child-care subsidies cut since 2002 and to avoid losing another 550 spaces this year.

Bountrogianni is probably the most knowledgeable children's minister the province has ever had. She holds a Ph.D. in child psychology; she has run child-care centres, taught at the college and university level, and worked as the chief psychologist for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

Her federal counterpart in Ottawa, Social Development Minister Liza Frulla, is a dynamic MP from Quebec, where $7-a-day child care is available to most families.

Combined with a new socially progressive mayor and a prime minister in Ottawa who reportedly understands child care, advocates say there has never been a better political climate for day-care issues.

"I think we have an opportunity to begin building a real child-care system in this country similar to universal health care," said Martha Friendly, head of the University of Toronto's Childcare Resource and Research Unit.

"If (Prime Minister) Paul Martin is serious about creating an economically competitive country for the 21st century, he's got to get started on child care."

Like health care, child care is the constitutional responsibility of the provinces. But just as health care is governed by the National Health Act, Friendly believes Ottawa must set national principles for child care through federal legislation.

Then it must make all federal funding for child care contingent upon the provinces meeting those principles.

Friendly points to Ottawa's five-year $2.2 billion Early Childhood Development Initiative signed with the provinces in 2000 as an example of what happens when the federal government doesn't set clear conditions. That money, which has been flowing to the provinces since 2001, was supposed to be spent on a variety of children's services, including licensed child care. But since there was nothing to compel provinces to spend any of the cash on child care, Ontario's former Tory government used the bulk of the money on children's health and information pamphlets for parents. Not a penny went to licensed care.

Ottawa took another stab at helping beleaguered day cares last spring when former human resources minister Jane Stewart unveiled the $900 million Multilateral Framework on Early Learning and Child Care. Under that five-year scheme, Ottawa spent $25 million on licensed child care last year and will increase the annual amounts to $350 million by 2007.

"Now we need federal legislation and clearly stated national goals and timetables," Friendly said. "And then we need a federal action plan to achieve it and real money to fund it."

Advocates acknowledge an affordable and high quality child-care system available to all children whether their parents work or not, can't be built overnight and won't be cheap. They say it could take between 10 to 15 years and cost at least $10 billion annually.

But the social and economic benefits for the country would be huge. It would give all kids a good start for school, allow parents to work, study and contribute to the economic health of the country and provide families moral support and community connections when their children are young.

Ottawa may try to speed up existing funding for child care. And in his new role as Martin's parliamentary secretary responsible for cities, Godfrey said he'll continue to make the case for day care. "It's very much part of the cities' agenda. It's where the needs are greatest and the city of Toronto would be a prime case of where we are in desperate need," he said.

Ontario's $5.6 billion deficit has cast a long shadow over the Liberals' promise to spend $300 million in new provincial funds on child care and early learning, Bountrogianni said.

- reprinted from Toronto Star